Students, faculty express concerns about online exam invigilation amidst COVID-19 outbreak

As UBC transitions to remote teaching and assessments during the COVID-19 pandemic, students and faculty have doubts about the online proctoring of their exams.

After the cancellation of in-person final exams, UBC instructors are planning to administer online exams through a variety of alternative means. One such tool is Proctorio, a remote invigilation system that monitors the test taker’s activity.

Proctorio claims that its software uses “advanced machine learning and facial detection technology” to analyze student behaviour and flag issues for instructor review. Then, “instructors have the final decision on whether the activity constitutes misconduct.”

While Proctorio has been previously used in some of UBC’s distance learning courses, students unfamiliar with the software have expressed concerns about protecting their privacy as well as technical and logistical aspects of taking an online proctored exam.

Protecting student privacy

Proctorio tracks eye movements, records suspicious activities and — depending on the exam settings — asks for room scans.

Abby Baehr, a first-year science student who has used Proctorio for a midterm, said that while she didn’t face any technical issues, she felt “weird taking a test knowing [she] was being recorded.”

Baehr added that while she understood that examiners are trying to prevent students from cheating, she was initially slightly uncomfortable taking the test.

She said her privacy concerns were put to rest after her “professor explained that only she would see these videos and it would only be necessary for her to watch them if part of our video was flagged,” she said.

UBC’s Keep Teaching website asks instructors to address students’ privacy concerns by reassuring students that they don’t need to worry if they “engage with the exam honestly.”

“I … appreciate that some students would be concerned if they don’t know the system well,” said Dr. Andrew Baron, an associate professor of psychology who has been administering Proctorio-based exams for four years.

He said while he hasn’t been keeping up with the recent discussions surrounding privacy issues, “the only people who have access [to the recordings], as far as I understand, would be someone like the course instructor.”

In an emailed statement to The Ubyssey, Founder and CEO Mike Olsen assured that Proctorio takes its users’ privacy seriously and leverages “zero-knowledge encryption” to ensure the student data is inaccessible to Proctorio.

“[This] means the institution holds the encryption keys for the exam recordings, and Proctorio does not,” he wrote. “Only the institution can unlock them, and therefore view them.”

He added that Proctorio in itself is a lockdown browser and a proctoring tool which can even be used to simply prevent printing and not record anything.

“If certain data is being recorded, it is because the institution/faculty member wants it recorded,” he said.

Furthermore, the exam footage can be viewed by the instructors using the same browser extension.

“This allows us to do some basic locking of the data, prevent clipboard and print functions and block any ability to download or access recordings offline,” wrote Olsen.

According to him, despite being a US-based company, Proctorio complies with the Canadian legal regulations by “normally utilizing only Canadian data centres for processing and storing exam data.”

Uninterrupted connection

According to Proctorio’s technical check before an exam begins, the exam may be terminated if the student’s internet disconnects.

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Students are concerned that this could affect their exam performance.

“With the unreliable internet [in my hometown], I think I’ll really be at a disadvantage,” said Manan Shah, a second-year business student from India.

Because Shah’s home internet connectivity is currently unstable, he relies primarily on “expensive” mobile data to attend online lectures and exams. He added that since India is in a complete lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, internet service providers won’t be able to resolve connectivity issues until after UBC’s exam period.

Citing his years of experience in teaching distance learning courses, Baron agreed that it’s “not uncommon” for students abroad to lose their internet connectivity in the middle of an exam.

“Certainly [this happens in countries] … where the power will go down, so the whole internet is out and they have a sort of cycling of power, just to not overextend infrastructure,” he said.

Despite the occasional issues, however, Baron noted that he has “never had a single case where a student has been unable to complete an exam.” With detailed logs and the ability to extend the time of a student’s exam in Proctorio, he is able to ensure that students aren’t negatively impacted by technical difficulties.

Olsen wrote that not only does Proctorio require a low amount of bandwidth, but tries to continuously reconnect when outages occur. He added that if the connection is restored within 15 seconds, the test taker isn’t even informed of the outage.

“After a minute, we will black out the screen and give them another 60 seconds to be reconnected,” he wrote.

He clarified that when the session ends, as long as time is still left in the exam, students can “establish connectivity and jump back in where they left off.”

But Baron was also quick to acknowledge that this transition could be more challenging for faculty members without any previous experience with online proctoring.

“Under the current circumstances I can imagine the faculty [being] more nervous about this if you haven’t experienced teaching distance courses already.”

Still, other students are concerned about not having the adequate equipment required for administering online-proctored exams.

“My prof is thinking of [using] Proctorio .. but I don’t have a webcam, [and] I’m sure tons of other students out there don’t either,” wrote Reddit user u/layelowe.

“My laptop is 10 years old and runs Linux, and I don't know if by then it will be feasible to come to UBC and borrow a laptop,” wrote another Reddit user blackandwhite1987.

In a written statement to The Ubyssey, UBC Media Relations Director of University Affairs Matthew Ramsey acknowledged the challenges that have come with the transition to online course delivery and invigilation. He emphasized that UBC has worked hard to ensure faculty have flexibility in their approaches including the delivery of final exams remotely.

“If a system is not working for a faculty member, we encourage them to consider alternatives and work with the university if required to implement those alternatives,” said Ramsey.

Deciphering academic honesty

Despite the privacy and technological concerns raised by the use of Proctorio, its proponents say that it allows for an even playing ground by ensuring academic honesty.

But Dr. Ervin Malakaj, an assistant professor of German studies at UBC, tweeted against such monitoring of student behaviour. He believes that UBC should move away from “surveillance culture.”

Dr. Juliet O’Brien, a lecturer in the department of French, Hispanic and Italian studies, chimed in by describing the importance of “academic kindness” in academic integrity. O’Brien shared her approach for administering exams and claimed she’s seen “no signs of cheating.”

Baron also shared his experiences at Harvard University where students had to sign honour codes, noting that while UBC students aren’t always required to sign such codes, he has faith in most of his students.

“And sure, there are going to be some students who cheat, but the vast majority don’t,” said Baron.

“I don’t lie in bed at night anxious [thinking] about my students cheating just because I expect that the vast majority of them are going to be mature and responsible and honourable.”